My unfortunate predilection for hippiedom manifests itself once again in an unseemly affection for keyboardist MERL SAUNDERS, who plays the Coach House on Thursday, May 18. Saunders is best-known for his four collaborative albums with Ultimate Hippie Jerome Garcia (no relation whatsoever to Willie G.!), but his trip was a long and strange one even before that, hence a large part of my admiration. What most smelly, tie-dyed longhairs don't realize is that Saunders studied under Hammond-torturing jazz master Jimmy Smith early on, subsequently turning in concert and session work with the distinguished likes of Miles Davis, B.B. King, Lionel Hampton, Johnny Mathis and Paul Butterfield, among others. More recently, Saunders has been known to hang out and jam with New Hippie acts like Blues Traveler and Phish, who apparently feel the need to keep company with someone who kept company with their hero, Captain Trips.
That's a pretty diverse list of co-conspirators, and Saunders' ease at moving between genres has been his artistic strength. The Bay Area fixture's playful spell casting on the B3 calls to mind Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Booker T. Jones, Stevie Wonder and former Grateful Dead keyboardist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, sometimes all within the framework of a single, extended song. And Saunders' enthusiasm for a long jam is as apparent as it is infectious to those of us who can put up with a 15-minute version of "In the Midnight Hour." Just as long as the grooves are carved deeply enough and the chops remain inventive—and they always do with Saunders helming the crew in his ever-present leather cap and combat boots.
The First Annual Chicano Blues Festival at the Green on the Hill, 27th Street & Walnut Avenue, Signal Hill, (818) 367-6614. Sun., doors open at noon. $15 in advance; $20 at the door; Merl Saunders performs at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930. Thurs., May 18, 8 p.m. $15.